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Eglė Budvytytė in collaboration with Marija Olšauskaitė and Julija Lukas Steponaitytė, Songs from the Compost: Mutating Bodies, Imploding Stars (still), 2020. 4K video, 28 minutes. Courtesy of the artist

Re-Choreographing Creation:

Songs from the Compost and the Art of Not Knowing

Dialogue with Eglė Budvytytė and Louis Corrigan

Eglė Budvytytė in collaboration with Marija Olšauskaitė and Julija Lukas Steponaitytė, Trailer for Songs from the Compost: Mutating Bodies, Imploding Stars 2020,  Courtesy of the artist

Lithuanian-born visual artist Eglė Budvytytė studied photography and media in Vilnius before moving to The Netherlands in 2004 to earn a second degree in audiovisual studies and a Master of Fine Arts. Yet, most of her work centers around choreographing the body for video and for live performances in public spaces. Her early pieces explored movement that subverts social expectations, such as brawny men who weep in public, or gestures of care in situations known for brutality. She then experimented with humans moving like insects and sea animals. She later employed songs “as a tool for incantation” in one of her few direct forays into encouraging audience participation.


This work reached a stunning apotheosis in Songs from the Compost: mutating bodies, imploding stars (2020), a thirty-minute video driven by her own hypnotic musical score, which invokes nurturing cyborgs and bacteria. Filmed in the ravishing natural setting of the Curonian Spit in western Lithuania, the film features the not-so-human movement of its performers, including a pack of five young nonbinary moving artists who crab across sand dunes and form flesh piles in the forest and solo performer and choreographer Mami Kang, who feels her way with long finger appendages, like a creature newly hatched, before striding, sometimes on her knees, along the axis between sand, sea, and sky. The piece also depicts two even more haunting figures, one sitting near the shore after a kind of alien childbirth, the other lying motionless, possibly dead, in a field of lichen, turkey tail mushrooms growing from their back.


Compost took shape during Budvytytė’s two-month residency at the Nida Art Colony in the Curonian Spit in 2019, and it was shot there the next year over six days of filming. It was ultimately presented at the 2022 Venice Biennale, where I found it the most moving, mysterious, unforgettable piece of the entire exhibition. I experienced it first as captivation, a rush of pleasure and disorientation, and only later began to understand what it might mean.


Installation view, Courtesy of the artist Songs from the Compost: Mutating Bodies, Imploding Stars at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University. Photography by Mike Jensen

Budvytytė began Compost by writing lyrics inspired by her reading of Octavia Butler’s stories of aliens who rescue and mate with humans, as in the novel Dawn. She also explored the work of evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, a maverick in a male-dominated field of Neo-Darwinists defending ideas of natural selection by way of competition-driven survival of the fittest. Margulis championed the idea that all evolution began with a symbiotic melding of single cell bacteria into more complex forms and that cooperation remains a key mode of evolutionary change. In this vein, lichen, a composite of a fungus with photosynthesizing algae, becomes emblematic of the hybridity of creation. Humans are also symbionts, mutually dependent on the bacteria that compose over half our cells. As Budvytytė lilts in song: “I am a host/I am being hosted/I am a host hosting.”


In her preface to her published lyrics, Budvytytė has described the two songs that repeat throughout the video as “love letters” to Butler and Margulis: “Reading them is like re-writing the inherited visions of gender, time, humanness, individuality and opening up to other ways of sensing and seeing things.” The lyrics reflect her poetic, playful refractions of their work and create a dreamy interpretive frame for the video’s visuals. She collaborated with sound designer Steve Martin Snider to modulate her vocals between high and low, delicate and deep, creating a choral confusion of gender within a soundscape of drippings, whispers, and echoes that suggest fluidity and the primordial.


The song Stones and Cyborgs begins joyfully with the thesis that we are not what we think we are, repeating “we have never been pure/we have never been clean.” It then launches into an extraordinary series of statements that begin a decentering process, a descent into “nonlinear time.”




I am a cyborg

          a symbiosis

                     a non binary alien

                               after gender abolition

                                          my name is medusa




                      I am a portal


I am a border line

between stone and

animal intelligence


I will gently guide you

through a process of becoming a stone

becoming slow

becoming a stone


Budvytytė works intuitively, experimentally, in a state of not knowing. She refers to her choreographic instructions as “scores” that provide a simple outline of setting, the general movement, and a feeling. Compost came out of a period of intoxication with her sources, the history of her own performance interests, and her rich personal connection to the setting. The piece evolved with help from key collaborators who filled in and literally fleshed out her ideas to comprise the final layered creation.

UNESCO recognized the Curonian Spit as a world heritage site. But it’s also an in-between space, the Curonian Lagoon to the east and the Baltic Sea to the west, the northern half controlled by Lithuania and the southern by Russia. Once a fishing village, the lush sliver of land in the middle around Nida has been multiply violated, situated now within what Budvytytė calls a neoliberal commercial resort for the few who can afford it and across the border from a Russian military base from which you can hear weapons being tested.


Yet the world of Compost is so radically removed from this or any social or political realm that it seems inadequate to talk about the film as environmental art even though it delves deep into ecology. Budvytytė explores what she calls “deep time” where categories we know, including our received ideas of the human, much less of gender, have been displaced, made messy, and more interesting. Rather than hierarchy and dominance, there is cooperation and interdependence, movement, change, decomposition, regeneration, new creation.

Budvytytė and I spoke on February 23rd in Atlanta at the Michael C. Carlos Museum on the campus of Emory University where Songs from the Compost is on view from February 3 to May 19, 2024.


Louis Corrigan

Atlanta, March 2024

Eglė Budvytytė, Songs_From_the_Compost_Still_02_crabbing.jpg

Eglė Budvytytė in collaboration with Marija Olšauskaitė and Julija Lukas Steponaitytė, Songs from the Compost: Mutating Bodies, Imploding Stars (still), 2020. 4K video, 28 minutes.

Courtesy of the artist

Louis Corrigan:  You weren’t trained as a choreographer, yet choreographing movement is central to what you're doing. How did you find that as your mode?


Eglė Budvytytė: The short answer would be I followed my heart. The longer one is I just had too much energy in my body to only work with images, and I felt like people in the visual arts academies were operating too much from the upper parts of their body, very cerebral and language based. I missed more embodied ways of doing things and thinking and creating. I was in this residence in Paris where we had the opportunity to collaborate with the theatre director to make little sketches, and this was the first time I had the opportunity. I reached out to some dancers to make a short performance and I had a lot of fun working with them. And I was like, I have to find ways to continue this trajectory. So I just started going to different movement workshops and befriending dancers. I wasn't trying to become a dancer, but I wanted to learn a little bit more about embodiment.


LC: Had you taken any dance classes when you were younger?


EB: No, I was very bad at dancing! Like notoriously. I couldn't keep up any rhythm.


LC: Certainly, in academic circles, everyone is very cerebral. But it’s hard for most people to occupy their bodies. I took some workshops for non-dancers, and we started by rolling around on the floor, rolling over each other, very simple things to be in our bodies and in relationship to other bodies. I thought, if all the world did this regularly, most of our political problems would disappear.


EB: I agree.


LC: You have an early video piece, Shaking Children (2013), where you began to work with the body through shaking.


EB: I was thinking about disobedience and then I reached out to a friend who worked with movement and taught yoga and I asked: what would be the movement that could trigger this disobedience through the body? And they were like, shaking. We worked together with my long-term collaborator Dutch artist Bart Groenendaal, and we realized this work together. We contacted a few schools and went there with a dance colleague to give this workshop, and we just documented it.


LC: And the dance colleague was giving instructions to the students?


EB: She would guide them, starting with small movements in the extremities, the fingers. She was offering different images of plants, animals, like shaking in the wind, the earth being unstable, tremoring and playing with speed and intensity of movements. The kids were interpreting this verbal score with their bodies. 


LC: It’s so interesting to see the kids let go to different degrees. Some really got into it, like the blond-haired boy who’s just going crazy by the end. As a viewer, you get drawn in. I could feel my body wanting to move with them.


EB: Amazing, yeah, mirror neurons.


Eglė Budvytytė in collaboration with with Bart Groenendaal, Shaking Children, 2013 HD video, 05;30, Courtesy of the artist

LC: You employed shaking in other public performance pieces, too, such as Choreography for the Running Male (2014) and Shakers, Lovers and Bystanders (2017). What kept drawing you back to it?


EB: Partly for this kind of poetical potential to disrupt how we move through life, through public space. There's something very orderly and domesticated in how most people move through their daily lives. The shaking felt like it could connect us with this more untamed nature of ourselves. Also, I’m interested in this contradiction, how to work with something as disorganized and chaotic as shaking as choreographic material. What do we consider as a legitimate choreography? I also find that producing images of human vulnerability helps us to embrace our own vulnerability. I’m drawn to this vulnerability as an answer to this idea of being in control, or humans controlling the environment, or subjecting it to their needs.


But shaking is so many things. It's used across different cultures and rituals, and it's used as a therapeutic modality in

TRE—Stress,Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises.


LC: You said that during Covid you trained in this mind-body therapy and that you introduced Emory students to it this week.


EB: Yes, I facilitated the practice here on the campus for different students. TRE comprises seven exercises that are meant to gently fatigue the muscles and help to activate the tremor. The student would then go into gentle and regulated tremoring while lying on the mats.

LC: So the exercise induces a tremor?


EB: It activates it and according to this modality, tremor is something that's innate in our systems. We just don't tap into this.


Eglė Budvytytė, Choreography for the Running Male,  (Performance for Mindaugas Triennial, the 11th Baltic Triennial of International Art,
Photography by Leva BudžeiKaitė, Courtesy of the artist

LC: How does it help you with trauma or tension?


EB: It's a release mechanism. It helps the nervous system to balance itself. Due to stressful or traumatic experiences, we have these frozen parts in the body, and the tremor helps to bring them back, reintegrate them. It also assists in post traumatic growth. 


LC: It makes sense that would interest you. That’s also an oddly good segue into Songs from the Compost, which I think as a piece of art does something similar. As I told you, it was my favorite work at the Venice Biennale. I felt enthralled and altered by it, but I knew I didn't fully understand it. How did it start? What did you want to do?


EB: It started with me messing around in my studio with language and little poems and just trying to make little, short melodies and see what comes out. Just really playing with language without having a particular goal in mind. I continued this work of song making with my sound collaborator Steve Martin Snider to see if I could enrich these simple songs with soundscapes.


Then I got an invitation to do a residency in Nida. I didn't have any particular plan. I was just spending time in the forest, watching the forest closely, reading science fiction. I had to propose an artwork for the show at the end of the residency. I thought, I have these songs, maybe I should shoot a music video to accompany them. See what happens if they get an image along with them. When the songs were ready, it became more clear that there was some content there, not just me playing with language. So how to translate that content into images that support the voice and the sound.


Really, the forest holds a special place in my heart, so I was thinking maybe there would be a way to translate this feeling that I have in that forest in the moving image. I didn't have any particular narrative in mind. I had a bunch of scores, what could be interesting to do in this landscape, how to relate to it. And then I think all this experience from previous works and all these ideas around horizontality, vulnerability, it just kind of filtered through this course of engaging with the landscape. 


A big part was my collaborator Marija Olšauskaitė, whom I invited to do the clothes. Then her partner Julija Lukas [Steponaitytė] also joined. They really helped to determine the look of the film by contributing that specific type of costumes and art directing. 

Eglė Budvytytė. Songs_From_the_Compost_Still_06-pack on edge of dunes.jpg

Eglė Budvytytė in collaboration with Marija Olšauskaitė and Julija Lukas Steponaitytė, Songs from the Compost: Mutating Bodies, Imploding Stars (still), 2020. 4K video, 28 minutes.

Courtesy of the artist

LC: How would you describe the costumes?


EB: They pull from the ideas in the lyrics: compost, decaying, bacteria. Thus, Marija dug secondhand clothes in the garden behind my studio. She left them there to compost and be eaten by soil microorganisms. This gave that worn out look and helped the colors and textures to blend in with the landscape.


LC: And you were reading Butler and Margulis?


EB: Yeah, I was reading while writing. Simultaneously, kind of. Well, Butler I’d already read.


LC: Were there specific texts? I thought of Dawn, the first book of the Xenogenesis trilogy also called Lilith’s Brood.


EB: Yes, that was the biggest influence. All the tentacle life. Then some other stories where humans have symbiotic relationships with aliens. She was an inspiration. You read these stories and you're like, oh, they’re so ugly but they're so amazing in their thinking, in their non-hierarchical way of dealing with the world and with their healing practices.


LC: The aliens are surprising. In Dawn, Lilith initially cries out “Medusa” because she sees this alien figure and thinks it's a human covered in snakes, but it's covered in these tentacles that are a different mode of perceiving. So you are initially horrified, but then you realize that it's not what you think.


EB: That was really an inspiration to me, how to undo your own prejudices. And somehow that bled into the film in some fluid ways, it was like a fog, it kept on entering into my headspace of how to work with these images and not make them only grotesque or hideous but that they could have some soothing messages.


LC: But the movement parts of Compost began filling in later.


EB: Yeah, just before shooting, I came up with these scores. My notes are like “group of kids walking through the forest, slowly walking, descending from the dunes upside down, like crabs.” It always strikes me how simple these scores were, but I think where the complexity then comes in is in the later stage of, how are they walking? What colors do we see in the image? What is the light? What is the background? How slow is the camera following it? How does that interact with the sound? So it's trying to be very precise with these details, but the conceptual premise is quite simple.


LC: The moment the performers slipped down the ledge onto the sand dunes, my heart leapt up. And then to see this incredibly strange crabbing. How did that come to you?


EB: Those dunes, I would spend time there as a kid sliding down from them.


LC: Oh, you would?


EB: Yeah, yeah, it's a landscape that I know. I would walk this forest, like many times, myself with friends and family. One of the guiding forces was how to make the human figure less arrogant, more connected to its animal ancestors, less vertical and less dominant over the world, but more part of the world. That inspired the crab movement.


LC: It looks both beautiful and effortful, difficult.


EB: Yes, it was very laborious to perform.


LC: I love that and the whole group of them moving along the water on their knees. You’re obviously looking at human performers, but at times they move like animals, as if walking upright is not necessarily the natural way or the only way.


EB: Yeah, I wanted to have this sense of an animal herd with the kids roaming.

Eglė Budvytytė. Songs_From_the_Compost_Still_03-Mami Kang walks on her knees (1).jpg

Eglė Budvytytė in collaboration with Marija Olšauskaitė and Julija Lukas Steponaitytė, Songs from the Compost: Mutating Bodies, Imploding Stars (still), 2020. 4K video, 28 minutes. Courtesy of the artist

LC: The camera even follows Mami Kang’s character striding on her knees across the sand, almost to make us ask, what kind of creature leaves such marks? At times, she looks like an animal that's just been born, looking at her hand, looking around at her environment and trying to understand what she is and where she is. There’s a wonderful moment in the editing where the lyrics note “a shift in perception” just as Kang turns her head and you see her inquisitive look. You said Kang choreographed her own movement, but was that in consultation with you?


EB: Mami Kang brought her own choreographic research and her archive of very specific and crafted movements into the project. I proposed to her to work with the score of walking, traversing of the landscape. I was curious what kind of tension / meaning the forest and her somewhat inorganic movement material would generate. 


Most of the shoot, I felt I didn't exactly know what I was doing and what was happening and what will come out of this. You’re in the space of not knowing, you're just trying something out and then in the end you have this footage and try to make sense of it in the editing. 


LC: Once you went through the footage, were you surprised by what you had? Did it make more sense than you thought?


EB: No, I was very critical of it. 


LC: You thought, we have to salvage it?


EB: Yeah, yeah, I was like, okay, it looks beautiful, but I don't know what it means yet. We have to keep on editing.


LC: Do you know what it means now?


EB: No, I don't really know. I just know it's something that I released into the world. It's fascinating to see all these people project meaning on it. And it keeps on surprising me. I knew maybe the feeling, what I wanted to transmit, the songs and the images, but the meaning part, it's harder to pinpoint. I can, of course, try to wrap it in language and explain it, but I don't know if it makes it more valuable.


LC: What are some of the responses that you've gotten?


EB: Some people said it made them aware of their breath and that it was soothing. And that they were moved emotionally. I was surprised by that level of appreciation.


LC: In getting ready to talk to you, I tried to think through what this piece is really doing. I had a chance to watch it a number of times here and I was trying to analyze it and make sense of it, right? I read some Margulis, some Butler, so I think I have at least a better idea of what's feeding into it. And I love the poetry of your lyrics. But I guess I'm really satisfied with the idea that it does remain mysterious and because it's mysterious it can work on you emotionally as a viewer. I think it’s an extraordinary piece.


EB: Thank you, I'm glad it resonates with you. It's amazing the practice of playing with words and images and looking for resonances and poetic connections can come out and talks to people. To the wider world outside my studio, my cave.


LC: Does that surprise you?


EB: In a way, yeah, but maybe that's the power of art.


LC: I was thinking about how the piece disoriented me and it reminded me of the old idea of art as estrangement or defamiliarization, which goes back to Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky. In his Theory of Prose (1925), he talks about needing “to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony.” He says such estrangement “makes perception long and ‘laborious’” because in trying to figure out what's happening, we're also, in a way, creating the meaning. I love that because his language echoes your lyrics of “becoming slow, becoming a stone.” In trying to be attuned to a larger connection between our beings and nature, we have to slow down. We have to forget what we know and see the world not as we've been told to understand it, but as we actually sense it.


EB: Totally, I am with you. I read this book, I keep on reading it because it's very dense, it's called The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World by David Abram. He writes a lot about this, how we as humans separated ourselves from our senses and from the living landscape and through language and religion and many things, we now come to perceive ourselves as separate from the trees and the stones and the birds. He talks about how to read the landscape and all the things that are happening that are imbued with meaning and not just random fluctuations.

Eglė Budvytytė, Songs_From_the_Compost_Still_installation shot, alien birth.jpg

Eglė Budvytytė in collaboration with Marija Olšauskaitė and Julija Lukas Steponaitytė, Songs from the Compost: Mutating Bodies, Imploding Stars (still), 2020. 4K video, 28 minutes.

Courtesy of the artist

LC: I think this speaks to how Compost does have a spiritual dimension, right? Kind of trying to reconnect people.


EB: Absolutely. Maybe when you asked me about the intention, maybe the intention without me formulating it was to capture the spirits of the forest in the form of this visual poem. I sometimes feel very lucky that the spirits showed up during the shoot, sometimes in the form of the wind.


LC: Oh, I love the shots of the wind in the trees. It feels like the spirit of the deep time. The soundtrack goes down and you have this moment of just quiet, and you see the trees blowing, and you can feel that, right?


EB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There is that [spiritual] dimension. I'm always a bit shy about talking about it. Maybe not anymore, but it's definitely one of the informing forces also.


LC: But this came from you knowing this landscape.


EB: It’s a precious place that I have a personal connection to. And that informs how it enters into my camera’s field of view. From that emotional attachment to knowing it….


LC: You’re willing to trust the place in a way.


EB: Yeah.


LC:  So someone I talked to said the piece feels post-apocalyptic and bleak. It could be read as post-something. But I said, well, no, it's very redemptive because we can all just relax and wait for the microbes to consume us and turn us into something new and better!


EB: That's a good way to put it. I prefer this to “apocalyptic.” We had this discussion with the students, if it's dystopian or utopian. And they said it's both, it can be both, it doesn't have to be one thing. That's why I try also in the soundtrack to really create that sense of being held and that kind of tenderness that talks maybe on other emotional frequencies than the images. I appreciate when art holds complexity and cannot be easily categorized.


LC: That makes me think of what I call the flesh piles of care, the group of five young performers in the woods where they're resting or engaged in chimpanzee-like grooming or rolling over each other. Is this an erotics of care? There’s a kind of attention to each other and almost caressing that is not sexual but seems pleasurable. Does that make sense?


EB: Yes, totally. The score was to take care of each other, without using too much of their hands. That's why we ended up with the heads pushing. The score was to surrender, to mimic what the tree that's laying there is doing, sinking into that moss. So they were sinking in also while tending to each other, trying to align themselves with the tree trunks. They’re relinquishing human agency a little bit and embracing tree and animal agencies, like searching for lice in the hair. 


LC: So what is nonlinear time? Is that just the cycle of life? You have a birth scene then the dead body that looks beautiful and alive and has these wonderful mushrooms growing out of it. Is that nonlinear time in that humans think of a sense of progress and of our dominance and nonlinear time is realizing that's not the story?


EB: Yes, all of the above. And also for me the nonlinear time is a rotting tree trunk laying on a forest floor. While the tree is decomposing and melting into the ground there is life - moss and mushrooms that are growing on it while it's dying. I’ve been finding a type of fungi that grows on trees, finding some of them laying on the moss. I would pick one up and see that inside there is a massive colony of bugs that made it their home and are busy with their lives in that dried out fungi. So for me these are nonlinear times, how these dead structures are nourishing, enabling life for others. Looking at that tree, I had this, what's the word? Epiphany. It’s all these phenomena unfolding at the same time. It's not just singularity.


LC: It does feel comforting.


EB: Yeah, it does. And humbling also.

Eglė Budvytytė, Songs_From_the_Compost_Still_05-dead figure with mushrooms and lichen.jpg

Eglė Budvytytė in collaboration with Marija Olšauskaitė and Julija Lukas Steponaitytė, Songs from the Compost: Mutating Bodies, Imploding Stars (still), 2020. 4K video, 28 minutes.

Courtesy of the artist

egle5_photo by Marjolein Vogels (1).jpg

Eglė Budvytytė works at the intersection between visual and performing arts. Her work has been shown at Whitechapel Gallery, London (2022); Venice Biennale (2022); Riga International Biennial of Contemporary
Art in Latvia (2020); Renaissance Society, Chicago (2018); South London Gallery (2018); and
19th Biennale of Sydney (2014); among others.

Eglė Budvytytė photo by Marjolein Vogels


Louis Corrigan photo by Amber Boardman

Louis Corrigan is an Atlanta-based writer. He previously served on the boards of several Atlanta non-profit arts organizations, continuing a family tradition of support for the city and its culture. His great-great-grandfather co-owned the city’s first bookstore and published its first city directory. His father served as one of the original staff members of Atlanta Magazine.

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